Steve Zaillian’s adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel All the King’s Men, about the making of a demagogue—modeled on Louisiana governor (and later senator) Huey Long—is languid, undramatic and shapeless. Zaillian has a talent for streamlining big, incident-filled books. He wrote the screenplay for Schindler’s List and both wrote and directed A Civil Action. But in this case his love for the novel seems to have done him in.
Warren’s book is lyrical and impressionistic, and despite its size (nearly 600 pages) it relies on the reader’s imagination to fill in the arc of Willie Stark’s rise to power. Stark begins as a decent politician who captures the poor and working class by voicing their outrage. He then becomes a master manipulator, practically a mobster, who barely escapes impeachment. In Zaillian’s movie, Stark (Sean Penn) is first one and then the other.